Eat, Hike, Swim
A juxtaposition of old world and new, Songtan (population: 171,000) is an eclectic blend of 21st-century architecture and old-time farmhouses, many of which are now dilapidated and vacant. Devoid of mega-attractions like nearby Yongin City’s Everland Park, greater Songtan manages to offer surprisingly quirky diversions for anyone willing to venture a bit off the beaten trail. That said, you don’t need to travel far: The city is only a 1.5-hour drive from downtown Seoul on the Gyeongbu Expressway; a 50-minute bus ride from Gangnam’s Nambu Bus Terminal; or a subway ride straight to Songtan Station on line 1. Regardless of how you get there, you’re sure to experience the most offbeat urban-rural contrasts in all of Gyeonggi Province.
Start near Sinjang Mall, opposite the Osan Air Base’s main gate in central Songtan, and walk east under the archway and down the main pedestrian drag; here the street is lined with trendy shops and noisy clubs blaring rock ‘n’ roll, bustling with activity seven days a week. You’ll find a range of major cuisines: Filipino, Vietnamese, Mexican, Thai — there were five Thai eateries alone at last count — and, of course, pizza. Sinjang Mall is one of the few spots outside Seoul or the U.S. military facilities that can offer authentic pizza. If you’re really keen on the comfort food, check out Miss Jin’s legitimately famous hamburger stand immediately on the left before the archway. Managed by Jin and her daughter, the stand has been featured in national media since it first opened in 2002. While many places offering Western-style food make you pay a premium for the luxury, Miss Jin’s also has the distinction of being inexpensive. Cheeseburgers are 3,500 won and hot dogs go for 3,000. Want cheese? No problem. Just fork over another 500 won; they’ll customize your entire meal if you like. Artery-clogging, absolutely, yet still worth trying at least once for a nostalgic snack.
With numerous gift, souvenir and clothing stores at Sinjang Mall, you’ll have your hands full of things to do until 1 a.m. (the military curfew), when most establishments close down for the night. Before final call on almost any evening, though, you’ll find a lone Korean ajumma hawking bouquets of flowers. Buy some for yourself or your main squeeze, and then get a good night’s sleep. You’ll want to rest up before tomorrow’s big draw: Market Day.
Since 1995, every calendar day ending in four or nine has been designated a Market Day, regardless of the day (or holiday) it falls on. Behind the post office, a 15-minute walk from the air base, you’ll find fresh produce from nearby farms lining the streets and others from as far away as China. (Keep in mind, however, that most of the Chinese products have a bad reputation due to reports of contaminated preservatives.) During warm weather months keep an eye out for oddball items like exotic, brilliantly colored birds inside equally beautiful cages sold alongside those for eating — Japanese button quail deep-fried in a skillet makes a nice midday snack.
Fueled and ready, you can choose how to spend the afternoon. There’s Ojwa-dong, home to the shrine honoring mid-15th-century homeboy hero Lord Suseong, or Mangisa Temple and its impressive iron Buddha. (Just don’t drink from the public fountains, as many of them are contaminated.) But if shrines and temples aren’t your thing, you can swing over to the Jinwi River Recreation Area. Admission is reasonable (about 5,000 won for adults), there’s plenty of parking and the facilities are impressively well maintained. Construction for the park began in 2000 in order to give residents the opportunity to cool off during summers, as Jinwi River is far too dirty to swim in. There are several lovely swimming pools and refreshment stands, and a self-pedaling trolley car ride on the nearby train tracks. It’s fun for kids and adults alike, but bring a swimming cap — the lifeguards insist upon it.
If the weather isn’t swim-worthy, then try a hike. Mubong is a good place to start: Snap a photo of the signboard map with your phone, plot your trek and head for the hills. They cover a widely forested area, but don’t worry, you won’t get lost; trails are well frequented with many informational placards. Mubong is more arduous than its 682-foot summit indicates, yet the open-air pavilion at the top is well worth the effort.
There’s also plenty of hiking and biking on Buraksan Trail. Buraksan’s main entrance is on the left side of Route 1 heading south in central Songtan, near the three-story Buraksan Barley Rice restaurant. The trail runs longitudinally across the ridgeline of Buraksan and is an easier hike than Mubong, making it very popular and crowded year-round. Keep in mind, however, that many turn back at Heunchi Rest Area about 2.5 kilometers in, so if you need a break from people you’ll be able to continue on in virtual solitude. But before you do, hit up the food stand at the far end of the rest area, toward Eco-Bridge, for a cup of hot yam tea. It’ll be the best you’ve ever had (the woman who runs it is a pro — she calls herself the Buraksan coffee ajumma).
After your big hike, head over to greater Songtan’s best-kept culinary secret: Italiano Restaurant, open daily from noon to 9 p.m. Here, you can get the best home-cooked Italian meal for your money in Korea, which includes wine, soup, salad, entree and either coffee or green tea for only 15,000 won. An after-dinner stroll around the restaurant grounds will bring your perfect meal to a close, and the singing rooms near Pyeongtaek City Hall’s Songtan Annex serve as an excellent night cap. At twilight, the area lights up like the Las Vegas strip, with neon signs beckoning you and your friends to belt out your best solos all night long.
Buses run all day from Nambu Bus Terminal. The journey costs around 4,000 won and takes 40 to 60 minutes, depending on traffic. You can also take the subway directly to Songtan Station (line 1).
Getting to Italiano Restaurant
Go straight east on the highway opposite Jinwi Station along the Jinwi River for about 300 meters past the entrance to the Mt. Mubong complex; it’s hidden on the right.